Lovely review..

Writerly Debz


 The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes

So it’s Valentines so let’s talk chick lit, hearts and flowers … no let’s not. Let’s really not. There might be a romantic thread … but this book is anything but that.

I met the author because of my association with Unthank Books who, as you know, published one of my stories in their Unthology 3 collection. I was intrigued by his writing in the same collection and put my hand up for a review copy of his new book. I knew very little about it but I devoured it, some parts in sizeable chunks and some in small nibbles, savouring each morsel. I wanted to talk about it here as you are all readers and writers and because it’s a great example of thought-provoking, intellectual fiction – this is what you can do with a short story. And some.


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The Bone Spider

Novel número 3, maybe. Falafelling about with a new story today. May require worrying knowledge of spiders. Wandering away from crime and maybe towards magical realism which allows legitimate daydreaming, so what’s not to like. I need to look again at that French musician novelist person, the boy with the cuckoo heart, but can’t find it on my shelf.

Also, I’m researching the history of the Chinese seamen (my grandfather was one of them) in Liverpool for the backdrop. The book, in the end, will chart 3 generations of British Chinese. Not much written about this part of history except, as I have found, by Gregory Lee.

So it is supposed to chart the decades, from first sight to death, in a backwards kind of way, of a couple who, losing one child, ignore another. All, in some way or another, prefer their fantasies over reality, although I want to think about the magic of our own realities. So a dark fairytale, without the pumpkins. I need to research hair gel, too.

The Bone Spider

Cruel eyes pick out from a pewter face in a forest of hollow bone that nests around the girl, flitting like the movements of a nervous bird. The bone, like dessicated tusks, would be easily breakable but for how thickly it crowded together. This expert web. A girl who has become a woman in the prison of the bone spider. Who may die in the spiked cradle. A wingless thumbelina, a black-haired Rapunzel, an unroyal princess unworthy of rescue by the sad, random circumstance of her physical reality. this being, that she is not, in fact, beautiful. Not just that she is without beauty, and therefore rescue, but years of fear have made escape, or rescue, not only impossible but undesirable. Her body produces the silk which he comes to collect, reinforcing the bones that bind her. Floss winding around the jaw-like incisors of the bone spider. And so she watches, eyes straining and ageing, soon to be blind, and tells quiet herself silent stories as she cradles a shrunken casement of melon to that place below her breasts,where her ribs peter out, the gap between them, growing ever farther.

It wasn’t always like this.


Lucy noticed that her veins were unstitching before everything came apart. That her skin leaked cushion stuffing when no one was looking. Frothy, fragile. White.

Don’t be ridiculous, he would say, when she told him what was happening in the magic of the night. When he could not pronounce her insane. Day would forget.

A wink of starred light, the shape of a snowflake, winces off his spectacles. Collusion. The night knew, she was sure of it.

On their wedding day, 40 years ago, it had snowed fast and thick. Locking their guests in a mute, white landscape. A Christmas cake decoration.

And now he is dead.

And now they are dead.

And now she is dead.

It would be snowing outside the glass, in this tower where they had made their home. But her veins were coming apart, her stuffing was showing. At last, something was changing.

2. 19-somethingorother

She found him first, in the sunlight. And then later, amid the dust of their sadness and regret. But for now, his face strobed from side to side as she stared up, up, up at him through the water. His shoulders, the brown curl fallen from neoprene to his forehead. His frame, flickering with the slap of the water. Closer, as she gained on him. Closer still. She stopped rising, hands fanning circles in the water to hold herself still, tug back at the relentless buoyancy that would rather pop her to the surface. Warbled voices filled her ears, the ker-plunk of a foot thunking the bottom.

Above the third of water, is a third of landscape, and above this, a third of sky. Blue as a Wall’s ice cream box that holds their favourite biscuits, pink wafers, in the larder, next to the tea. In the middle of the sky and the outdoor pool are portrait people. Impressionistic, from Mai’s blurred vantage point. Mothers, with their narrow English faces, narrow feet and sausage legs squeezed into bathing suits. They smear their chubby, trumpeting babies in white cream, which sits on the water line like colourless raspberry ripple, or frogspawn. Nearby, swings ring with twisting metal. High, higher. Dogs the size of teddy bears meet and create a circle. Cars shush, just audible, on the road that rings the park, and leads people in. Beyond, the cinders and black of a bombed cathedral, a stark reminder.

Below the water, Mai waits and the knowledge gathers. To the stranger looking down, she has become glacial. And he feels a needle of panic. Until he notices the flutter of her fingers, the shape of a rubber-ringed toddler striving towards her, temporarily obscuring his vision. Tomato-faced, the toddler is creaking and squeaking with the effort. The stranger hears the snap and churn of a Polaroid, the moment frozen by the toddler’s mother, he presumes, in an attempt to try and force time to stop, to slow. He hopes the toddler’s legs don’t reach the woman in the water. The stranger looks over at the mother, flapping the Polaroid and frowning at it into the sun. When she looks back, her child has already reached the other side. Gobbling up the space. A moment of his time that she has missed, and will never retrieve. Her shoulders, ever so slightly, soften and her lips, the colour of the child’s face, of every woman’s mouth this year, straightens. Because, perhaps without knowing, she has felt this gap, that something she would have wanted has been eaten by the impatient press of time. She knows, in the space between one spasm of her heart and the next, that this will happen more and more, and more.

This, the tomato-faced toddler, and the bombed church, its foundations still vibrating within the earth, its skeleton still faintly warm, is why people are impatient.

A baby has eclipsed the sun and the face of the stranger. When he clears, his pedalling feet leaving the spit of his effort bobbing on the surface, her rocking body as he dragged overhead, slowing to a lulled wave, she is bursting to breathe. Still, she waits. Because when she surfaces, it will all begin. And then she sees the stranger reach out a hand and her feet, the things she is most shy about, which are not narrow as the feet of English women, pulse. One kick and she sails up, their fingers touching.

3. Now